Dec 21, 2013

Austin Nonprofit Is Prisoners’ Source for Used Books

By Barbara Zinckernagel
For Reporting Texas

The main route used books can take into Texas prisons passes through a tiny volunteer organization in Austin that manages to put about 25,000 books into prisoners’ hands every year.

While Amazon and other bookstores can ship to prisons, the state Department of Criminal Justice forbids families and friends from sending used books because of concerns that packages will contain contraband. For 15 years, though, the department has allowed Inside Books to answer prisoners’ requests. The Inside Books Project, in turn, has had a consistently hard time raising money for its substantial postal costs.

There are 150,719 inmates in Texas state prisons, according to TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst.

“And this room right here is the only way to get non-new books to any of them,” said 37-year-old Web developer Alex Wright, a volunteer team leader with Inside Books headquarters, located on East 12th Street in central Austin.

“We are the only noncommercial books-to-prison program in the entire state of Texas. Books are freedom, books are a basic human necessity and look around – it’s just 10 guys with envelopes and tape,” he said.

The Department of Criminal Justice offers no formal assistance to either inmates or Inside Books volunteers.

“But we appreciate their participation in the department’s mission of promoting positive change in offender behavior and reintegrating offenders into society,” Hurst said in an email.

On a recent evening this reporter spent two hours at the Inside Books office responding to inmate letters. One expressed interest in books on publishing poetry and learning Spanish, as well as in comics and a prisoner’s resource guide. The order was a challenge. Inside Books limits packages to 2 pounds per order to hold down postage, and restricts inmates to four book requests a year. The inmate received a guide to getting published and the resource guide.

The reservoir of available books depends on what’s collected at drop boxes located at Inside Books headquarters and elsewhere, including Monkey Wrench Books and Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse.

Dan Murphy, 35 and a full-time volunteer who takes occasional odd jobs, is another team leader at Inside Books. He keeps living costs at a minimum by eating free dinners through his many charity contacts, renting cheaply and avoiding non-essentials. “It definitely requires some creative financing,” he said. He spends 40 to 50 hours a week volunteering. Murphy and four other team leaders organize other volunteers, who open and answer inmate letters every Thursday and Sunday evening.

“Issues related to prison tend to be swept under the rug,” Murphy said. “But prisoners are an underserved population, and I think it is one of the biggest issues facing our country.”

Resource guides, dictionaries and textbooks are the most frequently requested items, Inside Books veteran Scott O’Dierno said. O’Dierno, 43, a boat keeper at Zilker Park, has been volunteering for 13 years. Magazines and comics are popular, too, he said.

Inside Books receives neither federal nor state money and depends on donations. It spends 85 percent of its $34,000 annual budget on postage. The remainder goes to envelopes, tape, its website and the $75 monthly rent to a church organization that owns the Inside Books space.

Department of Criminal Justice limitations frustrate Wright, who wishes the system were more flexible. For example, sharing database information on prisoners’ whereabouts would have saved a lot of his and fellow team leaders’ time. Prisoners are moved around a lot, so their location always needs to be confirmed before sending books. Inside Books has now developed its own prisoner database system.

“It would be so much easier if we could access some more information,” Wright said.

TDCJ spokesman Hurst said the department can’t share its prisoner-location database because of security requirements.

The rejection of books because of inappropriate content, such as pictures of nude, antique statues, is also a recurring problem.

Murphy and Wright developed the Inside Books Resource Guide last year in response to prisoner requests for tips on getting legal advice or finding a job. Wright said he doesn’t understand why inmates don’t have those resources already.

“The department of corrections has zero philosophy of rehabilitation,” Wright said. “I find that maddening.”

Hurst said the department does make resources available, but only to soon-to-be-released inmates. The Inside Books Project sends out more than 2,000 of its resource guides a year.